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D&D 5E Calibration of single character skill checks

Whom to calibrate common DCs for single-character skill checks, and assume party help or not?

  • Natural or skilled characters - either has a good ability score or is trained.

    Votes: 18 69.2%
  • Talented characters - assume the character would have a good ability score and must have proficiency

    Votes: 8 30.8%
  • Focused characters - assume character high ability score and expertise.

    Votes: 2 7.7%
  • No Team Support - base the DC just on the character.

    Votes: 16 61.5%
  • Team Support - should we assume the party will be able to provide +3-5 in other bonuses for checks

    Votes: 4 15.4%

  • Total voters
    26
Okay, you are writing a module. Where do you put the DCs?

Or better yet, please read the example and give one fo those recommendations to the DM to calibrate it - do they calibrate that their superstar can often get the DC but still fail regularly, or that someone focusing so much shoudl pass almost all the time?
The problem is the wording. You're looking at it one direction, but your wording makes other look at it from another direction. You're really asking: how difficult of tasks should be used? This is where the DC comes from in 5E, rather than the treadmill often found in other editions and RPGs. The difficulty of any single task is the same, no matter who attempts it, or at what level.

To answer the question you're really looking for, it depends on the purpose of the task. A group task should be really simple, assuming no modifier. A serious consequence for failure should assume no better than a Natural character, a minor consequence no better than Talented, and only a beneficial consequence assuming Focused. I never consider working together, except to determine if/how it can happen.

Take 10 isn’t a thing in 5e.
It is, sort of. Passive checks can be construed as the 5E form of taking the 10. While only Perception and Insight have a spot on the character sheets, and Investigation is only mentioned in a couple of feats, there's nothing that prevents the DM from using Passive checks with any skill or task. I use Passive "knowledge" checks for general information (seeking a specific bit of information requires an active roll).
 

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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
That’s the automatic success optional rule. That’s very different than take 10.
Look also at multiple ability checks, a few pages earlier, and consider the two together.

[EDIT Wording such as "If a character's proficiency bonus applies to a check, he or she automatically succeeds if the DC is less than or equal to the relevant ability score."]
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
For my part, I don't think about the characters at all (to the extent that is humanly possible) when deciding on a DC, which is always 10, 15, or 20 unless there's a contest. Does the approach to the goal in the context of the challenge make this relatively easy? Then 10. Does it make it hard? Then, 20. Somewhere in between? 15. Is there something about the situation that gives the character an advantage or disadvantage? Then apply that. The character's ability scores and proficiencies will play into their success without any special consideration from me. Which makes sense to me because I don't see why a DM should be expected to know much of anything about the PCs' capabilities. I know I only have a vague idea at best. Part of that is the drink, but the lion's share is that I just don't have to know so I don't bother.

(Notably, advantage specifically applies to things that are not related to the character's inherent capabilities. That suggests to me that DC shouldn't consider the character's inherent capabilities either. Ability scores, proficiencies, and whatnot will account for it.)
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
For my part, I don't think about the characters at all (to the extent that is humanly possible) when deciding on a DC, which is always 10, 15, or 20 unless there's a contest. Does the approach to the goal in the context of the challenge make this relatively easy? Then 10. Does it make it hard? Then, 20. Somewhere in between? 15. Is there something about the situation that gives the character an advantage or disadvantage? Then apply that. The character's ability scores and proficiencies will play into their success without any special consideration from me. Which makes sense to me because I don't see why a DM should be expected to know much of anything about the PCs' capabilities. I know I only have a vague idea at best. Part of that is the drink, but the lion's share is that I just don't have to know so I don't bother.

(Notably, advantage specifically applies to things that are not related to the character's inherent capabilities. That suggests to me that DC shouldn't consider the character's inherent capabilities either. Ability scores, proficiencies, and whatnot will account for it.)
I often find myself thinking about who created the difficulty? Say the sheerness of a castle wall, the resistance of a lock, the cunning concealment of a secret door. That can guide as to a DC that makes good sense in-world.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I often find myself thinking about who created the difficulty? Say the sheerness of a castle wall, the resistance of a lock, the cunning concealment of a secret door. That can guide as to a DC that makes good sense in-world.
Yes, that plus the approach the player states is what I use to determine the DC. Often that approach will be pretty standard (e.g. "use my thieves' tools to pick the lock") and so really what matters at that point is the complexity of the mechanism. This lock is simple or this one is made by a master of their craft, that sort of thing.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
It is, sort of. Passive checks can be construed as the 5E form of taking the 10. While only Perception and Insight have a spot on the character sheets, and Investigation is only mentioned in a couple of feats, there's nothing that prevents the DM from using Passive checks with any skill or task. I use Passive "knowledge" checks for general information (seeking a specific bit of information requires an active roll).
While passive checks are procedurally similar to taking 10, they are used to resolve different things. Taking 10 is used to resolve a task a PC takes significantly more time to complete than usual (I forget exactly how long), whereas passive checks are used to resolve a task performed repeatedly over time, or when the DM wants to resolve a check secretly.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Look also at multiple ability checks, a few pages earlier, and consider the two together.

[EDIT Wording such as "If a character's proficiency bonus applies to a check, he or she automatically succeeds if the DC is less than or equal to the relevant ability score."]
This is different from taking 10 in the opposite way from how passive checks are different; it’s used to resolve similar tasks that you would use taking 10 for, but it is a different procedure for resolving them.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
This is different from taking 10 in the opposite way from how passive checks are different; it’s used to resolve similar tasks that you would use taking 10 for, but it is a different procedure for resolving them.
It can produce a slightly different result, too. I don't believe this quibble materially impacts my central point, which is that a sailor can't really fail to dock their boat. The check is easy (DC 10, barring unusual factors like a raging storm) and they pass it without rolling.

I find it helpful to think about the DCs from the perspective of low-level characters (including in my view, 0th level or "skilled" people). On that same page in the DMG it describes that "a DC 30 check is nearly impossible for most low-level characters" and the perspective "low-level characters" is repeated in several places. So I believe that's what the designers were going for. @Swarmkeeper take a look at DMG239 - the section on Difficulty Class. Rather than "most likely" I believe it almost certain that the designers wrote the DCs from the perspective of low-level characters... because they say they did on that page.

While that helpfully anchors the day-to-day world, it is not quite so useful for DMs. I believe DMs need to have in mind characters who can achieve what would be nearly impossible for a low-level character. Say at second tier - +4 mod, +3 prof, +3 exp, +d4 guidance, +d8 inspiration - 13-42 with an average roll of 27. For me that can lead to an interesting investigation of ones assumptions about the game-world.
 
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Minigiant

Legend
This is different from taking 10 in the opposite way from how passive checks are different; it’s used to resolve similar tasks that you would use taking 10 for, but it is a different procedure for resolving them.

Personally I think 5e made an error in not handing out Expertise and Reliable Talent to all the skill classes and skilled NPCs.
 



It can produce a slightly different result, too. I don't believe this quibble materially impacts my central point, which is that a sailor can't really fail to dock their boat. The check is easy (DC 10, barring unusual factors like a raging storm) and they pass it without rolling.
In your example there really is no “check”. Perhaps you meant “the task is easy” so the sailor doesn’t need to make a check - the DM grants auto-success.

I find it helpful to think about the DCs from the perspective of low-level characters (including in my view, 0th level or "skilled" people). On that same page in the DMG it describes that "a DC 30 check is nearly impossible for most low-level characters" and the perspective "low-level characters" is repeated in several places. So I believe that's what the designers were going for. @Swarmkeeper take a look at DMG239 - the section on Difficulty Class. Rather than "most likely" I believe it almost certain that the designers wrote the DCs from the perspective of low-level characters... because they say they did on that page.
Yes, that’s what I’m interpreting @Charlaquin to mean. You seem to be quibbling over the degree of my “most likely” vs your “almost certain”.

While that helpfully anchors the day-to-day world, it is not quite so useful for DMs. I believe DMs need to have in mind characters who can achieve what would be nearly impossible for a low-level character. Say at second tier - +4 mod, +3 prof, +3 exp, +d4 guidance, +d8 inspiration - 13-42 with an average roll of 27. For me that can lead to an interesting investigation of ones assumptions about the game-world.
Good use of “anchors” to allude to your sailor example! :)

I disagree here. First of all, second tier is not low-level, so you’re now changing the definition you just established. Second, if a party brings their resources to bear in accomplishing tasks more easily (or even automatically), that’s great and should be encouraged. Inspiration, expertise, guidance, and the like are not always available and really needn’t be considered by the DM when setting DCs. As @iserith mentions above, the DC (if one is even needed) should be based on the task at hand and the approach. Otherwise, IMO, we are encouraging the DM to engage in an ability check arms race for no real gain in game play fun.
 

Classes that get expertise or bonus skill proficiencies
I’m not following…

You want to “hand out expertise and reliable talent” to all the “skill classes” that already “get expertise or bonus skill proficiencies”.

Rogues are all set already.
Bards just need Reliable Talent.

Is this really what you are getting at?
 


Minigiant

Legend
I’m not following…

You want to “hand out expertise and reliable talent” to all the “skill classes” that already “get expertise or bonus skill proficiencies”.

Rogues are all set already.
Bards just need Reliable Talent.

Is this really what you are getting at?

I mean artificers, rangers, and monks.
 


I don't calibrate skill check DCs based on the player characters; I calibrate them on what seems reasonable within the fiction. Usually I set the DCs around 13-18 and will increase them higher based on what a player is trying to accomplish. If a player wants to accomplish more with a single roll, the DC goes higher, where if he shoots for a more average result, I'll lower it. Example: convincing the guards to let you walk into the king's throne room fully armed and intimidating? DC 20. Allowing the party to be disarmed except for the wizard requesting to keep his staff? That might be a bit lower, or it might not.

Special circumstances alter DCs if I've noted them in advance. A wall that is covered with slime, for example, might be a base DC 15 to climb but it's so slippery that I'll bump it up to DC 20 (or impose disadvantage).

Failure states change regardless of DC. A failed check might have harsh consequences with a low DC, and it might not even with a high DC. Sweet-talking the king into loaning you his crown? You're laughed and escorted out of the courtroom on a failure. Sweet-talking the king into funding an expedition to unexplored territory? Failure might be the king agrees, but the boat you get is a leaky cast-off that was retired from service.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
In your example there really is no “check”. Perhaps you meant “the task is easy” so the sailor doesn’t need to make a check - the DM grants auto-success.
I mean the task is "easy". Is that what you mean? Where we might differ is that I am thinking about what that could tell us about the game world, and the nature of day-to-day activities within it.

In one view - there is a putative check, but it is consistently waived. In another view, there is no check. What I find helpful about the first view is that it argues for in-world consistency. Whereas the second view creates a mystery - a kind of epiphenomenal ectoplasm - an aspect of the world disconnect from other aspects. For whatever reason - partly intuitively - I prefer the first view.

Yes, that’s what I’m interpreting @Charlaquin to mean. You seem to be quibbling over the degree of my “most likely” vs your “almost certain”.
I mean to buttress the view that the DCs get their meaning from the point of view of "low-level characters" - which is what I understood @Charlaquin was espousing. Did it seem that I was disagreeing? I was saying that words in the DMG add substantial weight to that view.

I disagree here. First of all, second tier is not low-level, so you’re now changing the definition you just established. Second, if a party brings their resources to bear in accomplishing tasks more easily (or even automatically), that’s great and should be encouraged. Inspiration, expertise, guidance, and the like are not always available and really needn’t be considered by the DM when setting DCs. As @iserith mentions above, the DC (if one is even needed) should be based on the task at hand and the approach. Otherwise, IMO, we are encouraging the DM to engage in an ability check arms race for no real gain in game play fun.
You may have mistaken the intent of my second example. I start by saying "While that helpfully anchors the day-to-day world, it is not quite so useful for DMs." So I mean that while a low-level perspective anchors the description-text of DCs (such that very hard actually is very hard), it stops being useful quite early on in a campaign arc.

In the DMG, the designers explain their intended pacing - they expect about ten 4-hour sessions to get to level 6 - so after ten sessions a group can often expect to have characters with an average roll of 27. So apposite to the OP, when it comes to calibrating skill checks I believe those descriptors - based as they are on low-level characters - stop being helpful.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
I don't calibrate skill check DCs based on the player characters; I calibrate them on what seems reasonable within the fiction.
Likewise, but what is happening in the fiction as characters level is very often that they are confronting far greater challenges. So the average lock on a house door doesn't suddenly escalate in DC, but they are attempting to defeat a lock designed to protect an artifact precious to the high house Dannihyr of Amn.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
If they succeed without rolling there isn’t a check.
That's what I am challenging on considerations like usefulness and mechanical necessity. There is a check, but it is waived... for skilled characters. It's conceivable for there to exist a being that can regularly fail that same check, and such a being would need to make the check.
 

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